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Meatless for a day: Explore the bounty produce, legumes and grains offer

No meat? Who cares with dish as dandy as Green Gumbo from Big Jones 5347 N. Clark 5347 N. Clark.

No meat? Who cares with a dish as dandy as the Green Gumbo from Big Jones, 5347 N. Clark, 5347 N. Clark. Friday, January 6, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 17, 2012 1:42PM

Here’s the truth: I hate meat substitutes. Seitan doesn’t resemble “steak.” Soy “meat” is no replacement for chicken. And non-meat tacos — save those filled with straight-up veg — are a letdown at best. It’s a big, joyless eating experience, and I want no part of it.

I’m not alone.

“A friend gave me barbecue ribs made from a meat substitute, and they were awful,” recalls Marc Bernard, executive chef of Big Bowl. “If you want ribs, eat ribs.”

Bernard goes on to say that there are wonderful, natural products out there that are worth your time.

That may be where the Meatless Monday movement comes in. It’s about taking steps toward lifestyle changes and incorporating those changes into a doable routine. Big Bowl is one of many restaurants involved in MM nationwide.

“Tofu, for example, is high in protein, locally produced and delicious,” Bernard says. “I would absolutely cook with it.”

Meatless Monday encourages devotees to serve sustainable, meat-free meals — or to dine out, following the same principals — one day a week. The goal is to reduce chronic, preventable diseases — heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes — while limiting participants’ carbon footprint and reducing the kind of fossil fuel dependence and water usage associated with industrial farming.

“Large-scale, factory farms contribute to groundwater pollution more than most major cities,” says Melissa Trimmer of C-House in the Affinia Chicago Hotel. “And [raising this] meat requires a huge amount of grain and water to produce a very small portion.”

Not surprisingly, meat-eating remains a hot-button issue. Unfortunately, the argument often takes a finger-wagging, eat-this-not-that tone. That’s an immediate turnoff.

“I don’t believe [the problem is with] vegetarian foods: it’s with loud, preaching vegetarians who think their way is the only way,” Bernard says.

Over the years, I’ve taken heat from zealots, who believe my morals are far too loosely “flexitarian.” My response: my meat consumption is reasonable — and conscientious.

I am concerned with what I eat, where it comes from and how it was grown or raised. And I make a concerted effort to load meals with vegetables, beans, fruits and nuts. The meat I do eat comes from humanely raised animals, from farmers I know. I make no apologies for that. However, I do think there’s value in revisiting your food choices, heightening your awareness and finding ways to contribute to a healthier world.

The question is, can human and planetary well-being dramatically improve with a one-day, three-squares approach? That depends.

“Going meatless one day a week won’t necessarily have a big impact on your diet,” says Gregory Ellis, executive chef of 2 Sparrows in Lincoln Park.

Ellis — who serves a wildly popular vegetable burger at his restaurant — notes veg-only eating isn’t always healthier. Preparation and ingredients play a big role. “I could eat deep-fried zucchini for Meatless Monday, but that really isn’t healthy.”

In this french fry-crazed culture, though, anything else can be a hard sell.

So, Paul Fehribach, executive chef/owner of Big Jones in Andersonville, has tricks up his sleeve. And he must be onto something: the restaurant enjoys a vegetarian following, despite having a pork and offal-heavy menu.

“We’ve always had several great vegetable options at any given time,” he says. “It’s very Southern. No table is set without an exquisite array of vegetables, and they’re usually not cooked with meat.”

Fehribach says that, at one point, he considered signing on for the Meatless Monday campaign, but he decided to take another approach.

“The name, ‘Meatless Monday,’ implies that you’re doing without something,” he says. “But with great vegetables, prepared well, nothing is missing.”

Meanwhile, Jill Barron, executive chef-owner of Wicker Park’s MANA Food Bar, provides a vegetable lover’s Eden every day of the week, one with flesh-free curries, quesadillas, pasta dishes and stir-frys.

And Joncarl Lachman, proprietor of HB Home Bistro in Boystown? He sates cravings on both sides of the fence with layered flavors, textures and little surprises, like a crunchy shower of caraway or coriander seeds.

“When I’m preparing a vegetable dish, I like to vary textures, say braised collards with roasted cauliflower, or incorporate bits of fennel, a handful of herbs and different types of citrus into a salad,” he says. “That way, you create varying bites and some, ‘oh, what’s that?’ ”

Inspiring as vegetable dishes can be, some hesitation remains about going “no hog.” It goes back to sermonizing. Ellis, like many of his ilk, bristle when non-meat eaters push their mindset on meat enthusiasts and omnivores.

Fehribach goes on to say he takes exception to some aspects of the MM drive because it suggests eating vegetarian is more environmentally responsible than eating meat.

“This couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says.

The biggest issue, he notes — a la C-House’s Trimmer — is with industrial agriculture.

“The way we like to eat — pastured animals, local and organic crops — the animals contribute to a healthy ecosystem,” Fehribach explains. “A properly managed pasture is an excellent carbon sink, while vegetable and grain production leaves bare land most of the year.”

As an alternative to Meatless Monday, Fehribach features a periodic, completely vegetarian menu. Based on Southern Foodways, it’s served as a value-driven, six-dish, family-style dinner. Priced at $25, it emphasizes ingredients such as Southern, organically grown heritage and heirloom grains, pulses and legumes.

“We believe that vegetarianism is an honorable choice for anyone who wants to check out of the industrial meat and dairy system,” Fehribach concludes, though he shows a clear favoritism toward non-mock foods.

“I’m not a big fan of meat substitutes,” Ellis agrees. “They don’t make sense to me. I can understand dietary restrictions that prohibit people from eating meat — meat that they really want to eat. But if you eat these substitutes, and you don’t have to eat them…”

With so many choices — from vegetarian lasagna to ratatouille-topped polenta or bean-loaded chili — satisfying, meatless meals abound.

“The recommended amount of meat for an adult is only four ounces a day,” Trimmer says.

That’s not to say her kids don’t love bacon. (They do.)

“But if we’ve had steak one night, I usually follow it with two days of veggie dinners to keep us healthy,” says Trimmer, who gets most of her produce from a CSA and preserves what she can’t immediately eat.

“It’s about keeping things reasonable, eating the whole animal and using everything,” she adds.

Whatever your persuasion, that’s certainly food for thought.

To find out more about Meatless Monday, visit

Jennifer Olvera is a local free-lance writer.

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